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Published: Friday, 1/10/2003

DeBacker won't pursue District 5 vacancy

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Gretchen DeBacker, who benefited from a Toledo City Council vote to forgive most of a $57,000 city loan plus interest, has shelved her political ambitions, at least for now.

Ms. DeBacker, 32, a law student at the University of Toledo, yesterday withdrew as a candidate for the vacant District 5 council seat.

“I'm almost finished with law school. When I was asked to consider the opportunity by the [Lucas County Democratic Party], that was all part of the decision,” Ms. DeBacker said.

She denied that the loan issue played a large part in her decision.

In 1999 and again in 2002 the city sued Ms. DeBacker and other family members to repay a 1994 economic development loan of $57,000 given to help them open a Sufficient Grounds coffeehouse in downtown Toledo.

The DeBackers claimed the venture lost money and that they stayed open because the Finkbeiner administration promised that the loan would be forgiven.

In July, council agreed to settle the debt for $15,000. Counting other payments, the DeBackers paid “close to $20,000” on the deal, Ms. DeBacker said.

Paula Ross, chairman of the county Democratic Party, said Ms. DeBacker told her yesterday morning she did not wish to screen when interviews are held next week.

The party had received written requests for screening committee interviews from Steve Zuber, a member of the Washington Local Board of Education; Michael Sarantou, a caterer and a nephew of Republican Toledo Councilman George Sarantou; Ed Van Gunten, a Toledo lawyer; Chris Champion, a spokesman for Thackeray's Books in the Westgate Village Shopping Center, and Consuelo Hernandez, an administrator with the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

District 5, in the northwest corner of the city, is bounded by Douglas Road, Laskey Road, Jackman Road, the Norfolk Southern railroad, the University-Parks Trail, the Village of Ottawa Hills, Sylvania Township, and the state of Michigan.

Council, which has a Democratic majority, is expected to name an appointee to that and one other vacancy on Jan. 21.

The loan could have become a political liability for Ms. DeBacker in a special election to be held May 6 and the regular election in November.

The Blade reported yesterday that Ms. DeBacker was the 1997 volunteer campaign manager of former Toledo Councilman Tina Skeldon Wozniak, who was one of nine council members voting for the settlement.

Ms. Wozniak, who resigned from council last month to fill a vacancy on the Lucas County Board of Commissioners, said she did not view the vote as a conflict of interest.

Two council members yesterday defended the settlement as the best possible compromise.

“We all voted for this because we all knew the history of Sufficient Grounds and the city,” council President Louis Escobar said.

Mr. Escobar said the DeBackers should be faulted for not getting the promise in writing, but that there have been other instances of promises made and not kept by development representatives of the Finkbeiner administration.

Councilman Sarantou said the DeBackers were told the city would develop a restaurant row in the block of Superior Street where Sufficient Grounds was located. Instead, the restaurant developments wound up across the Maumee River in The Docks.

George Sarantou said council members were troubled that nothing was put in writing, but were told by the law department that it was the best settlement they could expect.

The DeBackers sold the downtown and Westgate-area coffeehouses for an undisclosed price in January, 2002.

“It was a wash. We didn't lose money. None of us got rich on this,” she said.



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